Challenging the Rhetorical Gag and TRAP: Reproductive Capacities, Rights, and the Helms Amendment

Michele Goodwin | June 1, 2018

This Essay argues that the battle over women’s autonomy, especially their reproductive healthcare and decision-making, has always been about much more than simply women’s health and safety. Rather, upholding patriarchy and dominion over women’s reproduction historically served political purposes and entrenched social and cultural norms that framed women’s capacities almost exclusively as service to a husband, mothering, reproducing, and sexual chattel. In turn, such social norms—often enforced by statutes and legal opinions—took root in rhetoric rather than the realities of women’s humanity, experiences, capacities, autonomy, and lived lives. As such, law created legal fictions about women and their supposed lack of intellectual and social capacities. Law trapped women to the destinies courts and legislatures aspired for them and continues to do so. This Essay turns to the less engaged international sphere and the copious Congressional Record to unpack how the Helms Amendment and later, the Mexico City Policy (or Global Gag Rule), emerged from this type of lawmaking. This Essay shows how these harmful dictates on women’s lives and bodies in developing nations result in a deadly rise of illegal abortions, criminal punishments, stigmatization, and sadly, deaths.